Cusco to Machu Picchu

There are all variety of treks organized out of Cusco, a lot of them culminating in an arrival at Machu Pichu. I’m sure they’re grand adventures, but as I mentioned at the end of my last post, my inclinations are to get more off the beaten path. My second night in Cusco, I stay at the de-facto “casa del ciclista”, a bare bones, rustic, but warm and welcoming hostal. The refrigerator is tiled with stickers, post cards, and photographs of trans-global cycle tourists branding and marketing themselves, sometimes to attract readers to their blog and such, and sometimes just as a tag. A wall of the kitchen is papered with highly detailed instructions for getting to Machu Pichu by bicycle from Cusco, and on the cheap. Perfect! This is exactly what I’m setting out to do. Unfortunately, each seems more complicated than the last: instructing the would-be follower to send their bike by bus from one point to the next and trekking some other route to reunite with it. After a few minutes of trying to muster enthusiasm for the proposed itineraries, I decide “too long, didn’t read”, and go back to my original plan, which is the same plan I always have, which is to not really have any plan, beyond map a direct-ish route, try to follow it, and adapt as need be.

For Cusco to Machu Pichu by bike the main obstacle is that there are no roads to Machu Pichu, only railroad tracks and trails. I read a blog of a fat bike cyclist who did a through-trip including Machu Pichu, starting at the far end from Cusco, and sneaking past a security gate (near a hydroelectric plant) under the cover of night. He also mentions that the route could be probably be done in reverse, so I figure I can just cycle to the nearer place where the road ends on the way to Machu Pichu.
Soon after pedaling up some steep, tour bus congested, aggressive dog lined, unpleasantness, and out of the valley in which Cusco sits, the direct-ish route is off-highway. Before teaming up with Diane, I’d been doing a pretty even balance (time-, not distance-wise) of paved and unpaved road. For the stretch with Diane, we were almost all paved road, but it was relatively lightly trafficked. Such is not the case in the Cusco region.

This unpaved road is, as it happens, under extensive construction, blocked off by concrete and dirt-pile barricade to anything wider than a motorcycle, with dozens of men doing all variety of work on it. This is great, as it means there’s no cars to deal with at all. The workers that take a quick brake to observe me seem amused and happy to watch me weaving through them. I happen to be walking by a corrugated metal roofed, wall-less shelter, when I hear the metallic “pings” characteristic of fat fast raindrops, or hail, hitting such metal, and see the workers jog and run to similar nearby shelters. I duck into the shelter and decide that now seems like a fine time to take a lunch break. I crack a can of tuna, twist off the nozzle of a bag of mayo, open a cylinder of crackers, and feed myself a dozen in-can prepared tuna-fish salad mini-sandwiches.

Oh how I love the nozzle-bag technology. Jelly, mayonnaise (or any condiment for that matter), chocolate paste, peanut butter. I only wish they weren’t single use and were universally available for anything that one could hope to transport with nary an excess of weight or volume, and then squeeze through a nozzle as desired.

I see lightening touch down on one of the clusters of rebar spires that are ubiquitous among construction in Latin America. I feel perfectly safe, laying low, under a Faraday roof. As lunch concludes, the hail tapers off to rain, and the lightening lets up. Other than the rain shell I’ve donned for warmth and against splatter, I’m still dressed for the sunny, steamy climb out of Cusco, so I strip down to bike shorts and layer up with almost everything I’ve got. A couple of construction workers in adjoining shelter considerately downplay their bemusement. Sometimes you’ve got to just reason you’ll almost certainly never again see that place, or any of the people therein.

After the fury just witnessed, and after stepping out from under the metal roof, the weather seems fairly tame, and once again, I’m exchanging smiles and thumbs up with workers and locals as I pass. The road is in varying stages of reconstruction, and mostly not terribly muddy, considering what’s just happened. It’s a gradual up, but on my first short stretch of down, I celebrate by happily letting gravity roll me up to maximum safe velocity. The 40ft+ cliff on the outside of the upcoming turn decreases my maximum safe velocity, so I go to brake, and feel my stomach in my throat as squeezing both levers is completely ineffectual. I haven’t braked once since before the wet, and my rims are a perfect mixture of road grease covered by find dust turned mud-arrhea. It only takes a couple of seconds for the brake pads to squeegy the rims enough to get some bite, and it’s enough bite to slow me down enough, but by then I’ve already instinctively unhooked a foot from a pedal to use as a brake on the ground, or…ejection lever?

I marvel at my good, and increasingly demonstrably underserved luck. I’ve had disjoint adrenaline jolts within the last hour (the non-inexperiencable terror that nearby thunder invokes), and still, everything is fine. I resolve to go slow on downhills from here on, particularly in these conditions.

It’s great to be on back roads, making a point of making prescribed stops (change layers, drink water) in the trajectory or presence of locals. Life is slow, simple , and cheerful in these parts, and people are usually more than happy to stop and chat while I change clothes, shove stuff in my face, mess with my bike, or whatever.

I approach a massive pile of dirt in the middle of the road, and a few meters later, come upon a 10 meter drop off, leading to a meter of flat and another then another 10 meter drop off, repeated a few times. It’s a man-made grand(-ish) canyon. These are completely familiar to anyone, but from the botton, on the completed road for which the canyon has been created. The convenience at the bottom is an obstacle at the top, where one has to now descend a hill from one of it’s now bisected sides, then climb back up the other side.

Of course there’s a temporary track to do this, and a kid on the other side of the canyon waves and points it out. I’m halfway up the far side when my problem becomes clear: I have loose-fitting booties on, as I have since lunch (having not walked more than a few steps since), which are caked in mud of all consistencies, and to take them off here and now would mean getting mud on most of the few things that weren’t yet covered in it. I’m slipping in the mud, and pausing every step or two to reassess and rest, work-shopping a couple quips with a local elderly woman walking some sheep. The kid that had waved to me earlier, about 8 years old, struts down, and without a word, gets behind my bike, leans into it, and starts pushing it so hard it’s all I can do to get myself in my slippy-booties going uphill fast enough to keep the bike upright. I’m all “muchas gracias”, as he takes a quick breather about every 10 strides, then leans back into it. At the top, the mud is relatively dry and there’s a small roadside embankment that I can prop the bike up against while I take off the booties. The kid hangs out, but doesn’t say much. I talk about my boots being too dirty to go in my bags, what’s in my bags, where I’m from, and all the stuff people are usually most interested in. He nods and seems interested, but he’s also interested in poking the mud out of the places it’s piled up, which is in fact very gratifying if somewhat futile in present conditions. When I’m up and ready to roll, I start walking my bike slowly, and he mirrors me on the other side. Gingerly, but somewhat suddenly, and again without a word, he puts his foot on his side’s pedal and trusts that I will hold the bike up, as he swings his other leg over the top bar. Also again, I’m barely able to react in time to accommodate, and in no time, he’s standing on pedals held level, the only way he can clear the top bar, and gripping the handlebars, as I walk the bike down the road. We’re only a few dozen meters from where my road and his diverge, so the ride lasts only about a minute, and then we exchange smiles and good byes. This, and so many experiences, of amazingly genuine curiosity, generosity and trust, is probably the single best thing about taking the dirt road, and is all too commonly the exact opposite of what you see in the places where there are the most tourists.

I get to a town called Masas as the sun starts to burn off some clouds and peek under others. My drivetrain is making terrible dirt-crunching in roller pin sounds, so I try to do a quick clean in the plaza, but it’s no use. From here, it’s a long, winding descent into the Sacred Valley, and it’s hard to imagine the weather was ever bad, as the golden hour is extra golden, and thankfully I rarely need to rip into the idyllic birdsong with the terrible screech that currently comes with pedaling.

When I’m about 1/3 of the way down into the valley from the round hills on which I’m tracing near gradients, I spot what looks like a great campsite. It’s a lightly used remnant of what was once a crudely made lookout road, well off the actual road, and just big enough for one tent. It overlooks a town below, and the entire scene is just splendid. This is the pinnacle of camping, so much nicer than camping in a campground. One might think to ask why more people don’t camp this way, but an equally important question is: would it be a good thing if more people did? I think, as it is, and as people generally are, it would be terrible if more people just camped wherever they want. I think it’s a special privilege to be permitted to do so, and one that has to be taken only when accepting necessary responsibility.

Specifically, these responsibilities are:

* If you need to shit, dig a hole and shit in it. For that matter, when you brush your teeth, kick a little hole to spit your toothpaste in and then cover that up.

* Don’t leave any trash…not even fruit peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, or anything else that you think is “biological” and therefore ok to return to nature.

* Tread lightly, be considerate of flora, even microflora like lichen and cryptogenic crust.

* Leave the place looking better than you found it. Pick up some trash that was already there, especially if you can reasonably pick up all of it.

People, I find, even other bike travelers and regular campers, are usually not 100% at this. Until they usually are, it’s totally just as well that most people who camp, don’t “wild” camp.

I’m not saying I’m always perfect in these regards, but I have been pretty good lately, and a spot like this, with so much to offer, including only a lonely sun-brittled 2.5L cola bottle for pre-existing trash, makes me re-resolve to the responsibilities inherent in the privilege of enjoying such places.

I make a delicious thick, farro and roots soup, then watch about 5 minutes of netflix on my phone before falling into a deep, restful, well earned sleep. At about 3am I wake up to pee and notice there’s a pretty solid rainfall, but that only makes the return to nest and sleep all the more satisfying. By sunrise, the rain is drizzle, and then the clouds break up, yielding sun that quickly dries anything it’s shining on. I spread out things to dry as I enjoy some morning coffee. I’ve neglected to pick up eggs, and so am foregoing my breakfast of pancakes and eggs. I use some gasoline from my stove’s canister to degrease my chain, then work it along with the rest of the now dry drivetrain with a toothbrush, then re-lubricate it.

It’s only 18km to Ollantaytambo, where I plan to stock up and continue on my ride to Machu Pichu. I find the mercado and stock up, meanwhile noticing large and impressive ruins overlooking the town from multiple sides. I decide to check out what looks to be a campground plus hostel. I’m greeted by an initially unfriendly seeming/loud barking pitbull whose name I’ll later learn is “Gringo” who barks as I hoist my bag up the stairs onto the grounds. Then I meet a remarkably personable, assertive and friendly horned sheep. Eventually the proprietor shows up and shows me around.

I go to check out the ruins and it feels great to zig zag up and down the hills.

When I come back, I meet the proprietor’s mom, who’s very chatty and friendly. I start working on my dinner in the shared kitchen, while she tells me about, and then shows me samples of, the many nut butters and natural foods she makes and jars. I buy a jar of handmade tahini.

I eat dinner, then chat a bit with a German woman who checked in while I was making dinner, and is the only other guest on site, until we realize it’s a bit late, and both turn in. She’s opted for dorm bed in a room with walls for 15 Sol ($4.50), while I’m going with camping, which I’m interpreting as putting my mat on a piece of ground in the open air (roofed) bar area for 10 Sol ($3).

I sleep great, and the next morning I make pancakes and coffee. The mom is there from the outset, chatting and happy to share breakfast. She’s practices Sukyo Mahikari, which is something that has something to do with “understanding and practicing Light”. You know, I don’t know. Google it. It’s something mystical. In practice, and what she’s asking if I’d like to do, is something where for 10 minutes I close my eyes and meditate while she holds her hand up to, close to but not touching, my forehead. I’m not 100% sure, my eyes are closed the whole time. And then for 5 minutes I’m on my stomach while she touches the spot on my spine I’d mentioned was seizing up. It seems I threw my back out yet again hoisting my bike up the stairs the day before. That part seems customized.

Shortly afterwards, I’m done packing up my bike, so I bid her and the German farewell as the they start their session. 15 minutes of concerted meditation is 15 more minutes than I’ve done in a long time, and I’d say it was worth trying Sukyo Mahikari for that reason alone.

Riding the 16km towards it, I’m a combination of anxious and eager to get to where the road ends, and the train track trekking begins. Several taxi and tuktuk drivers stop to ask where I’m going, and when I say Machu Pichu, the first one tells me that I can’t get there by bike and I should take a ride to Hidroelectrica instead, i.e. the far end of the car-free section of valley around Machu Pichu. He’s so insistent, that for subsequent inquiries I say I’m just going to Piskacucho, the town at the end of the road. I get to said town and follow the route shown on, going steep up a tributary canyon side to a bridge over the tributary. I spot a lost purse halfway up and stop to examine it, before returning it to where it was. I stop to take a picture from the bridge crossing the tributary, and then I notice a guy in a security uniform coming up the hill, whose probably only caught up because I’ve made these stops, calling to me to stop. He asks me about the purse to which I say it was there when I got there, and then he directs me to turn around. I politely protest, saying I’m just going to my friend’s house down the road a bit. The gambit is a flop, and he politely but firmly instructs me to return down the hill. I start asking about just walking my bike along the tracks, but he’s adamant that the bike is not allowed. I think I convey that I’ll go to the train station to see about catching the train from there, but sense that I haven’t succeeded in doing so when I see his slightly exasperated expression as we reunite at the station along the tracks, him having taken a more direct route down the slope to the station, me taking the less direct route through the junction where I had peeled off on my way up. That, or he did understand me and thought he had been clear when he (probably) told me that this station was not one at which passengers could board.

So it seems that taking my bike, either with or without the train, is not an option, and it’s time to adapt. I ask the security guard if I can walk the tracks without my bike and am pretty surprised to get a begrudging shrug and “si”. I ask again, using even fewer words, to make sure we’re both understanding what I’m asking, and again get an affirmative. So I ask around, among the five bystanders whose attention I already have pretty fully, if any of them knew where I might safely store my bike for a few days. I haven’t thought this fully through, as up until that point I’d sort of assumed that either I’d take the train or my bike from that point. It’s also just gone noon, and I have a little over 7 hours of daylight left to hike what I’m only vaguely recalling is something like 30 km (18 miles). So when a shopkeeper seems to understand what I’m requesting, and seems willing to help, I scramble to rearrange the contents of my bags so that I have everything I think I’ll need for the hike there, the visit to Machu Pichu, and the hike back, minus food that I can get once I’m there. This is basically day-hike supplies, layers for all weather, toothbrush and floss, all my ready-to-eat food which should be enough for 18 miles, and most of the rest of “the 10 essentials”, which are always in my handlebar bag. The sky is getting dark, mist is turning to occasional drops and the shopkeeper offers to sell me one of the highly disposable thin plastic ponchos that are popular in these parts. I have my rain shell, but the top half isn’t vinyl like the bottom. It’s reportedly “gore tex”, but the quality has been suspect from the outset, it’s approaching 20 years old, and recently I’ve noticed it doesn’t seem to be particularly good at keeping things inside of it dry. Considering I’m going on what I expect will be at least a 6 hour trip between known places of shelter, I decide it will be nice to have a stronger guarantee of waterproofness, and will also be good luck.

As I conclude handing over my bicycle, and realize that the shopkeeper’s plan is to leave the bike and detached bags leaning against the wall where I’ve staged them for storage until he’s ready to close shop for the day, I’m having second thoughts. This is based in no small part on having learned the night before that Diane’s (French cycle mate of previous post) bicycle has been stolen from her Couchsurfing hosts in Cusco. It occurs to me that it would be prudent to have at least a photograph of the stranger to whom I’m handing over the vast majority of my immediate possessions as a way to identify and locate him, worst case scenario. He and his wife happily oblige, but the security officer pointedly gets up from the bench which he had been sharing with them to avoid being in the photo. I ask him for a photo as well, and he thinks I’m asking him to take a photo of me with the couple. I clarify, and he firmly declines. I get a little bristly, and (attempt to) say that he’s the authority whose directive is the reason I’m leaving my bicycle in the first place, and therefore I should be able to take a photo of him, but he either doesn’t understand, or pretends to not understand, while maintaining that he doesn’t want his photo taken. I half-heartedly try to sneak one of him, but it’s pretty impossible given that all 5 people on the scene still have nothing more interesting to witness than the random gringo that’s just crashed the party.

As I set out, he instructs me to go up over the ravine, where he had initially stopped me, even though there are locals strolling up and down the tracks in front of us. As I do so, I feel a bit uneasy, and I almost decide to pull the plug on the whole thing, but I’ve already given the shopkeeper 30 Sol ($9), and am halfway back up this steep-ass hill. By the time I’m at the top, the rain is started in earnest, but I’ve pulled on the completely unbreathable and waterproof plastic poncho, and my cynicism is rapidly evaporating. The security guard has signed off on me walking the tracks, despite signs everywhere indicating it’s forbidden, with accompanying red-circle-slashed photographs of gringos doing the forbidden. From his perspective, considering his liability around what he’s just allowed me to do, not wanting me to take his photo seems obvious, though I’m still not sure why he had me go the longer, steep way around the station.

I make my way down the tracks, my ankles turning slightly at precarious angles on the jagged rocks forming the bed of the rails, assessing how this might have gone down with my loaded bike. I’m thinking things have probably turned out for the best as I come upon a small set of ruins that run to within a few feet of the train tracks. I stop to take them in when I hear a train approach, the first since I’ve started walking the tracks. The flat walls run in alternating right angles, mostly parallel and occasionally perpendicular to the curved rails, so I amble to a spot where the clearance is largest, just to be extra sure I have room to let the passing train clear me. As turns out to be commonly the case, it’s hard to know from which end of the curve rail, carved into a cliff, along the raging chocolate milk river, the train is approaching. By the time I see it round the corner from the direction I’ve come, I’m relieved I was extra safe and have enough room to press myself flat against the wall and leave myself a good foot from the train’s closest approach. If I’d had my bike to contend with, things would have been vastly more complicated, to put it mildly.

This is a point driven home further down the rails, in my third and fourth adrenaline moments since Cusco, when in diminishing light I have markedly less than a comfortable foot of clearance from the trains jutting metal structures. These are, resp., being caught on the inside curve of a tunnel immediately adjacent to another tunnel, and then against a sheer bank, in both cases with only enough time to squish myself into my best hope to not get swiped by the train. Neither situation would have ended better than me sacrificing my bike to the train, or over a cliff, had I had my unwieldy, loaded, not fat tired, but very fat bodied bike to contend with. So, at this point, I’m beyond grateful for the guard having stopped me from taking my bike.

Not to mention, now I have an excuse to not make a long, grueling, and relatively point-of-interest-free through-trip of Machu Pichu, coming back the long way.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then acute fatigue is necessity’s annoying uncle whose cautionary example prompts her to apply herself and go to college. At about 5 miles into the trek, the bandolier style into which I’ve hastily arranged my bags’ straps is proving unsustainable. The digging of the straps into my neck and collarbone, from both sides, is made a bit more bearable by holding at least the large bag in my hand to provide lift beyond what the strap provides, but this eventually fatigues my gripping muscles in an unpleasant way. After a snack break, it occurs to me to use the shoulder strap of the large bag to wrap around my waist. This works ok, but the bag flops against my legs with every step. I flip the bag upside down, so it runs up my back, but now how to keep it there? Enter the second, smaller, handlebar bag. I manage to work the strap of this bag around the large, inverted bag. It just barely fits around my mid torso when I reattach its strap to the small bag, which is now suspended against my chest or abdomen, depending on how I scootch it. It’s like a mega-fanny-pack, with a mini-front-pack, and I can only assume it looks pretty ridiculous. It isn’t without some annoyances, not least being that it’s far from ideal to have a strap compressing your torso while hiking, but it’s leaps and bounds more comfortable, and correspondingly the trek seems leaps and bounds more doable.

The trek becomes downright enjoyable with magic sunbeam breaks in the weather, but one can only cover ground so fast with ratty, falling apart leather sandals on jagged rock, and a new moon night falls quickly and completely about 20 minutes before I get to Machu Pichu village.

I check into a hostel, go to the municipal office to get my entry ticket to Machu Pichu for the next morning, eat every remaining calorie I have on hand, set my alarm for 4am, and then plunge into a deep sleep. The trains passing, and celebratory Christmas fireworks being set off immediately outside my dorm’s window do little to disturb my thoroughly earned slumber. My alarm goes off, and despite only 6 hours of sleep, I’m wide awake with excitement as I prepare for the day. The guy at the front desk said the night before that leaving at 4:30am would suffice, but by the time I get the 2 kilometers to the gate at the bottom of the hill leading up to the main gate to the ruins, there’s a line of about 100 people. I suppose he was spot on in the sense that within minutes of me queueing up, they start letting people through. I’m chomping at the bit, and my suspicion turns out to be true: that these “normals” going up the stone staircase trail are going become a traffic jam and keep me from ascending as quickly as I’d like. Every so often the trail crosses a road, giving me sufficient berth to pass clumps of panting gringos, and after a couple of these, I’m picking off singles, pairs, or trios, group by group. For the last 10 or 15 minutes of the ascent, I can’t see anybody ahead of me. I know I’m not the first because I can see footprints. When I get to the still closed front gate at the top, there are 5 young European (German?) seeming guys, trading jocular comments, stripping off drenched shirts (as is mine), comparing completion times. Maybe they were faster than me, and then again, maybe they just had better starting position. I can tell they’re trying to make sense of me, with my handlebar bag that looks like some rectilinear satchel/purse instead of any sort of backpack, my ratty leather sandals over thick wool socks, and my showing up in between them and several others in their party that I’d passed on the way up. But none of them is emboldened enough to engage me, and I’m preemptively bored by their euro-douchebaggery. On the other hand, I’m quite amused by their obvious embarrassment, a few minutes later, when a guy manning the gate instructs them to put their shirts back on.

I have to admit, something about crowds at National Parks and the like brings out the most petty in me. Last August, my mom and I went to Denali National Park for her birthday, and I can still picture the retired couple that split up to each take a window seat on the repurposed school bus taking us into the park, beyond where cars can drive, forcing another unfortunate couple to split up and each have an aisle seat.

Now, I’m resenting that the hoards of people that have taken the bus up the hill are arriving before us hikers have been allowed in. I was under the impression that by hiking up, we would have a few minute lead on the people that bussed up.

Before the gates open, we’re instructed to have tickets and passports ready. By manage to follow this instruction, I’m the first through the row of 4 turnstiles and into the site. By having reviewed the massive map on display at the entrance and reconciled it with the map of the site on my phone, I know exactly where I want to go, so that I quickly leave behind even the few people that managed to get through the entry gate at about the same time, and as I proceed at a rapid clip up towards the so-called Sun Gate, I have the place to myself. The ubiquitous morning mist has the place socked in, but there’s still enough visibility to get a sense of the precision and magnitude of the stone work in the walls that the trail runs along side. I load up some Sigur Ros on my headphones, and give myself pleasant chills imagining how similar everything I can see must be to how it was on any given morning, so many hundreds of years ago.

Only when I catch up with the guards that entered about 10 minutes before the gates were opened to the public, fanning out to man their stations, is the spell temporarily broken. I branch off to the trail up to the Sun Gate, and after about a kilometer of ascent, get to a viewpoint, where I stop to catch my breath, soak in the majesty of the ruins, and otherwise enjoy what I know will be my last few minutes of solitude anywhere within the place.

About 15 minutes later a procession of other tourists are making their way up, and soon the place is overrun. When a group backpackers, all clad in identical yellow shirts, comes down the trail from the other direction of the gate, I fall in line, and strike up conversation, with a couple of them. They confirm my suspicion that they’re finishing their trek of the Inca Trail, and that this trail is 36km long, as compared to the 28km that I hiked along railroad tracks to get to the village the night before. I’m thinking, 36 = 28 + 8, and 8 is not that much, so ask how long it took them to do the trail and if they think it could have been done in a single day, as I’d need to, with my lack of camping gear. They report that the trek took 4 days, which lines up with what I’d learned in my brief research on the matter, and they find the prospect of doing what they’ve done in a day utterly laughable. Whereas I’d walked a nearly flat path, they’ve done many many hundreds of meters of ascent and descent. They all look pretty fit, especially one of their guides who interjects to say that it would be absolutely impossible to do the trek in a day, in either direction. Given that I would have to have brought all my things with me into the site in order to exit the Sun Gate and try the trek backwards, and that I opted not to do so, owing to my ignorance of th prospect, I’m happy to hear that it would have been a foolish mission.

I spend the next several hours finding perches on which to sit and soak in the scenery. At one, I spot another, slightly older, solo gringo and ask if he speaks English. He says not much, he’s from France, and asks “If you’re a traveller, why don’t you speak French?” in very broken English. I chuckle, but his delivery strikes me as a bit antagonistic, so I don’t persist in trying to make conversation with him.

A young gringo stops at the viewpoint sporting a phone on a selfie stick, a chest-mounted goPro, and a tablet which is the device he is currently choosing to take a photo. I find him so comical I sneak a picture of him.

Just as I do, he turns to me and asks me to take a photo of him with his tablet. I do, and then ask for the same in return, handing him my phone. Afterwards, we chat a bit. He proudly tells me that he’s walked up from town, concluding “how could I not?!” to which I tell him that I’ve biked and walked from Cusco, to which he reports that he’s got to get going as his organized tour is set to start at noon.

The French guy is still there when I’m ready to move on about 30 minutes later, and he’s the only other person who’s spent more than a few minutes at the lookout, so we nod and wave goodbye when I do. I run into him a couple more times while still on the site. The final time I do, he’s wearing a “50th Birthday” birthday cake hat, and has me take his photo holding up a Peruvian flag. His birthday is actually in 2 days on Dec. 26, but he’s running early on his itinerary.

Eventually I’ve made all the detours I can, and I’m sheparded to the site exit, along with the rest of the visitors on the morning shift, so I clomp down the trail to the road back to the village. The knee that I banged up a couple weeks ago starts shooting with pain when I use it to lower my full weight, so I have to take a few breaks and limp my way down.

As I get back into town, it occurs to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen the town in any daylight, having arrived/left after/before dark, respectively, the night before. All the same, I’m contemplating catching a train back to Ollyantantambo, then backtracking to retrieve my bike, when I walk by the French guy sitting at a table outside a mini market. I say hi, and he offers to buy me a beer. I accept, and over time, employing a combination of Spanish, English, French, and pantomime, we’re able to cover a number of topics. Of particular interest is his account of walking to Machu Pichu village, but from the other end. His is the much more common route, taking a jam-packed mini-bus ride to where the road ends in hidroelectrica (near a town built around a damn). I honestly hadn’t really considered this option, though I’m pretty sure it was part of one of the detailed itineraries explained on the wall of the kitchen of the hostel in Cusco. According to his account, the minibus ride takes about 4 hours, and the 10km walk takes about 2 hours. Compare this with the 7 hours (with breaks) that the 28km walk takes, and I honestly can’t figure out why almost everybody who avoids taking the price-gauging train to Machu Pichu makes the choice of spending money to spend time squeezed into a minibus over spending basically the same amount of time on a beautiful stroll.

An Indian American family from the bay area walk by and stop to talk to the French guy, as they’ve had a similar sequence of path-crossings, and when it’s time for the French guy to head off to get his hair cut, I walk with the family to the train station. They’ve got tickets to take the train to Cusco, and I want to see if there’s a train that would make sense for me to catch.

There isn’t. The cheapest is $80, and it wouldn’t get me back in time to get my bike back in daylight when it would be safe for me to ride it back to the campground hostel in Ollyantantambo. So I book a private room, inadvertently negotiating the proprietor down when, in response to my “no gracias” after asking the rate, she asks me how much my dorm bed costs in the hostel I’m staying in, and then matches that price for a private room and bath. Travelling in the off-season has it’s advantages.

Fireworks at midnight wake me up this time. They’re more substantial explosions, since these are actually marking the beginning of Christmas day. I embark on my train track trek at 8am on a drizzly Christmas morning, and resolved to keep a pretty disciplined pace to make sure I get to the shop before the proprietor decides to quit for the day. It doesn’t occur to me to at least try to call the phone number he’d given to me when I left my bike with him until I’m a few kilometers out of the village, and out of signal.

I find a bunch of trails that run up and down hills surrounding the tracks that I’d missed before, and I’m happy to take small climbs instead of the jagged rock bed of the railroad. I squish a 1 Sol coin under a couple of trains.

I get to the end of my walk, and the shop with my bike (I hope) at 3pm, and there’s nobody in sight, but before I actually get to the shop window to see that it’s closed and locked, the security guard whistles me over. He barely suppresses rolling his eyes as I inform him that I’m the guy with the bike from a couple of days ago, then tells me to phone the number. I do, and I get a recording saying the number is not in service (or something). He calls from his phone and gets the same recording. Then he calls the wife of the shopkeeper, gets through, and gets the message conveyed that I’m there and wanting to collect my bike. He asks me for a Sol (28 cents) to cover the cost of the call and I’m happy to oblige. He’s in the same gruff seeming mood until I tell him how grateful I am that he prevented me from taking my bike along the tracks, and in pantomime and brutalized Spanish convey the close calls I had dodging trains and how best case, my bike would have almost certainly have had to have been sacrificed. He smiles with satisfaction, and then tells me something about some other people that pushed their bikes along the track which I don’t really understand, but get the impression that it did not end well.

The shop keeper shows up and let’s me into the shop to collect my bike. He asks for some more money, something I’d been planning on offering anyways, and I give him another $12 in appreciation of his efforts, calibrating against the cost of a hotel room. I’ve paid 3 times as much for my bike’s accomodations over the last two nights as I have for my own, but I’m happily grateful for the service he’s provided.

When I get back to Ollyantantambo, and cell signal, I get a message from Tomaso, an Italian friend I’d made in Lima my second night in Peru, that he’s on his way from Cusco by minibus to meet me. I’m just finishing preparing dinner when he arrives, and we share an impromptu Christmas dinner with a box of terrible Chilean white wine.

The next day, two travel companions of his (French and Italian) from Cusco come out and join us, along with a Argentinian friend we’ve made at the campground hostel. After banana pancakes and coffee breakfast, we run around some of the non-fee ruins on the outskirts of town. After a couple of hours, I break off to work on this blog entry while they continue to explore town. The two Italians make a massive risotto feast for dinner, and the couple that run the hostel (the husband being the son of the mother I’d gotten to know on my way to Machu Pichu), and one of their daughters join us for the feast. Most of the dinner conversation is in Spanish, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I’m able to follow. Tomaso, who fluently speaks Italian, French, Spanish and English is the universal translator for the group.

The next day, Tomaso and friends have plans to head back to Cusco after exploring a quarry, where from came the stones from which the ruins were built, on the other side of the valley, I get an early-ish start and bike 65km to Pisac, following a fairly flat road along the Sacred Valley’s river.

There, I check into a very hippy hostel where there’s a lot of discussion around recent ayahuasca ceremonies, and drug and non-drug based mystical experiences in general. I’m not necessarily opposed to these experiences, but I’ve decided to refrain for the duration of this trip since I’m getting a bit more than my fill of experience as it is.

The following day, I bike up to the main entrance to the Pisac ruins, a 1,500′ foot climb over about 4 miles. Alternatively, I could have taken a cab for about $1.20, but, you know… This way, I was able to make the 60km/hour, white knuckling, goose bumping flight back down.

Which brings us to right now, sitting on a balcony overlooking the plaza in town, wrapping up this post.

Tomorrow I’ll do the short ride back to Cusco checking out some ruins on the way. I’ll spend a night or two there, hopefully getting a chance to catch up with Diane and Tomaso, and then it’s on to Puno, Lake Titicaca, and La Paz Bolivia, from where I fly home in about 3 weeks.



Author: jeremycalvert

Temporarily retired mathematician and software engineer currently tooling around on a bicycle.

4 thoughts on “Cusco to Machu Picchu”

  1. “The reinvention of our daily lives, means marching off the edge of our maps.” I read that on Calm this morning, & thought of you.

    On Dec 28, 2017 8:04 PM, “Jeremy’s Bicycling Times” wrote:

    > jeremycalvert posted: “There are all variety of treks organized out of > Cusco, a lot of them culminating in an arrival at Machu Pichu. I’m sure > they’re grand adventures, but as I mentioned at the end of my last post, my > inclinations are to get more off the beaten path. My second” >


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